Of the 1,628 people that have been exonerated in the United States since 1989, only 148 of them have been women; this gender disparity is examined in an article published by
, which specifically looks at two lawyers who are focusing their attention on wrongfully convicted women. Lawyers Karen Daniel and Judy Royal both worked to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, and have now launched Northwestern’s Women’s Project—an exoneration effort exclusively focused on freeing wrongfully convicted women, writes
According to Daniel and Royal, there are multiple factors that contribute to wrongfully convicted women being underserved and underrepresented in exonerations nationally.
writes that one factor has to do with the availability of DNA evidence, since women are usually convicted of domestic crimes involving people who are close to them, and in those cases a woman’s DNA is often all over the crime scene, which makes it difficult to use DNA to prove her innocence. Innocence organizations often pass on these cases due to the constraints of the evidence.
However, Daniel and Royal found that an even more significant factor in women’s wrongful conviction cases is that there was never a crime to begin with.
reports that in 63 percent of female exoneration cases, a woman was convicted of a crime that never occurred; the deaths were actually related to a suicide or an accident. Only 21 percent of men’s cases could be attributed to the same errors.
Overturning convictions for crimes that were really accidents is difficult and time-consuming. Attorneys may have to prove that the prosecution misused or misunderstood forensic science or withheld crucial evidence. Proving that something was an accident may require attorneys to understand highly technical and controversial evidence on fire science, shaken-baby syndrome, toxicology, or rare medical conditions, and hire expensive expert witnesses to bolster their arguments. These hurdles disproportionately affect women: Daniel and Royal have found that 37 percent of the women (but around 20 percent of the men) in the exonerations registry were cleared because their original convictions used false or misleading forensic evidence.
Daniel and Royal also found that in many cases where women were exonerated because no crime had been committed, a motive was often fabricated based on sexist stereotypes. Daniel gave
an example of a prosecutor who suggested a mother had killed her son so that she could pursue a modeling career. “That was based on one tiny conversation expressing slight interest in maybe having a nice photo taken,” Daniel told
The woman was convicted and spent years in prison before the real perpetrator came forward.